The two ways of being shocked

In the previous post I described two types (possibly archetypes) of people: Roundheads and Cavaliers. This post will only make sense if you read that previous one.

At the end, I invited you to guess which kind you are. Well, let me help you along a little bit.

Part I: Know one when you see one

Below is a famous clip from a famous movie. As writing has voice, so does film-making, and the voice in this clip is …. [you fill it in: either Roundhead or Cavalier]:

Now contrast that with this clip. Again, please fill in: The voice in in this clip is […]

Part II: Vote

[UPDATE: For an explanation of the poll below, see my comment.]

Bookmark and Share

Grokking people: Cavaliers & Roundheads

Almost twelve years ago, when I joined The Economist, a kind and well-meaning colleague pulled me aside for an introduction to our culture. I had naively asked about an internal power struggle that had occurred many years before but involved some people who were still around. “Ah,” said my conversation partner, in a wry British way,

that’s when the Roundheads won the day.

“The what?” I asked.

Another colleague had overheard us and now joined in, closing the door to the hallway.

It doesn’t concern you, Andreas, because you’re not English. But it’s about Roundheads and Cavaliers.

You see, The Economist, being British–indeed English–has these two types within it, and out of this changing mixture comes the cocktail that is our culture.

I think my colleagues were wrong that this only concerns Englishmen. If you read on, I think you’ll agree that there are Roundheads and Cavaliers among, and inside, all of us.

Some historical context

The terms Roundhead and Cavalier go back to the English civil wars in the 1640s.

On one side were the parliamentarians, who wanted to get rid of the king. They were:

  • Puritan
  • angry, dour, outraged, earnest.
  • for Cromwell
  • a tad humorless

They also, at least in the beginning, liked to dress plainly and cut their hair short, which made their heads appear, at least to the other side, “round”. So their opponents called them Roundheads. Here is a good portrait of one:



On the other side were the royalists, who wanted, as the name implies, to keep the king. They were:

  • anything but Puritan, and indeed rather good at indulging
  • rather less good at being outraged, thanks to a certain inbred nonchalance
  • against Cromwell
  • flamboyant in style, and always ready to wink and chuckle at the insanity of it all.

Here is a good portrait of one (by the great Frans Hals):



I think you get the point. I mean, you must get the point. Just look at them.

Fast forward to today

Let’s not dwell on how the king lost his head and all that; these things happen. The reason these terms endured, at least in the English upper class, is that they describe types, and possibly archetypes.

The English brought these types to America. They sent the Roundheads to Massachussetts and the Cavaliers to Virginia. Both strands are still alive in America today. But the Roundheads won. Individual Americans may be one or the other, but American culture as a whole is reliably Roundhead:

  • earnest, literal
  • always ready to be outraged and indignant
  • not naturally given to irony

By contrast, in old England, and at The Economist in particular, the balance has tilted slightly toward the Cavaliers. These are cultures of irony, in which too much outrage and earnestness is, well, unseemly. (And yes, I think that’s why so many American Cavaliers like to read us; their home press makes them feel lonely, we make them feel at home.)

Add: subtlety

At this point, a number of you may be preparing to be, ahem, outraged. So let me introduce some nuance and preempt some misunderstandings (there’ll be a few anyway).

First, this is not about Left or Right. It’s about temperament. Let’s just take some examples from the right side of the spectrum:

Roundhead Cavalier
Thatcher Heath
DeLay Reagan

Second, it’s not either/or, whether in individuals or cultures. Rather, I think that Roundhead and Cavalier relate roughly as Yang and Yin do:


But, just as each of us is somewhat more Yang or more Yin, each of us also tends to be more Roundhead or Cavalier.

Postscript on McCain

Read David Grann in The New Yorker on what I consider an epic, a Greek, a heart-rending tragedy: the transformation, under pressure, of a great man, John McCain.

This is a man who was once “more at peace when he was losing” and who, above all, was afraid only of one thing: losing his honor.

Thinking in terms of the underlying idea for my book, I can’t help but wonder whether his (unexpected) “triumph” in the primaries was in fact the great “impostor” of his life, leading to an all-encompassing “disaster.”

(To those of you who are new to this blog, those words are from a Kipling poem that inspired my entire book.)

Bookmark and Share

The father of biography



Let’s get back to the bibliography for my book.

Right now–while we’re still dealing with the ancient sources–I’m going through the texts in chronological order. And after Polybius and Livy, that brings me to Plutarch.

You recall that Herodotus was the father of history. Well, Plutarch must be the father of biography. Like Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius, he was Greek. But Plutarch lived much later, in the first and second century AD–three centuries after Hannibal and Scipio. So I don’t use Plutarch because I think he has any scoops over Polybius, or more accurate information. Why, then, do I use (and love) Plutarch?

Because he was the first to take an interest in character. That’s what he wanted to capture: the characters of the great Greeks and Romans. For that he used the big events and deeds in their lives and, just as much, the tiniest but telling details. Occasionally, he may have stretched the facts a bit, but, hey, let’s relax about that and just enjoy.

In that respect, of course, Plutarch does exactly what I aspire to do in my book. I too want to capture how characters respond to success and failure, ups and downs.

Plutarch’s main work was his Parallel Lives (which we usually read in the John Dryden translation), in which he paired one great Greek with one great Roman. Alexander the Great, for instance, is paired with Julius Caesar, and so on.

Hannibal was neither Greek nor Roman, so we don’t have a Life with his name as title. But Hannibal, who is my main character, features prominently in several of Plutarch’s Lives: Fabius (who also plays a big role in my book), Marcellus (a Roman consul killed by Hannibal), Cato the Elder, Flamininus (conqueror/liberator of the Greeks and the man who finally hounded Hannibal into suicide).

Plutarch’s life of Pyrrhus, which I’ve quoted from, is one of my favorites, by the way.

The tragedy is that many of his lives are lost. And the loss that hurts most is, of course, the Life of Scipio, my other main character.

Bookmark and Share